Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cool Runners I know, Episode 1: Verna Troutman

"Endurance is nobler than strength and patience than beauty." John Ruskin (English writer, 1819-1908)

Welcome to a series of entries that I plan to write about--yeah, you guessed it--cool runners I know. These are the real people that inspire me every day. And I'm really going to enjoy telling their stories. I had no trouble picking my first victim, Verna Troutman. I hope I did you justice!

When I think of ultra-marathoners, one person comes to mind. Verna Troutman. Verna's running career exemplifies both amazing endurance and profound patience. Humble, gentle and full of placidity in her runs, she can truly run forever.

The longer the distance, the more likely you'll find her name at the top of her age group. Reading about her accomplishments, you'd think you are reading about a 30-year old. But no! In the October 2005 Equalizer 24 Hour Run Gray's Lake Park, Des Moines Iowa, she was the top female overall, and second runner overall, both male and female, with 78.4 miles at age 62! For the 2006 Patriot's Run (9 hours, 11 minutes), she was the top Female Finisher with 52 laps (37.9 miles). At age 63, she finished her first 100-miler at Mother Road 100 in November 2006.

I picked Verna first because she holds a special place in my heart. Verna was there when I finished my first marathon; I remember her bending down to look at me and say something that I barely heard through my sobbing and tears of joy and relief that my two plus year goal of finishing a marathon had finally been reached. And, I chose a woman purposefully--a woman of strength, grace, beauty. And one whom age has not tarnished. Her goals are big and she gives me hope for my future too. Verna, I hope I'm running ultras at 63! You rock!

You'll note out to the right in today's posting a block of Verna's Favorite Running web sites. I only knew two of them, and enjoyed poking around a bit, and I hope you do as well.

Before I interviewed Verna, I asked two other people to contribute to this story. First, Gary Walker (aka, Gary Runner), my long-suffering running buddy who puts up with me on most of my long runs. I'm not sure how he does it without any long-term psychological damage. Then again, maybe that explains a lot!

Gary says:
"In my eyes, Verna is a “professional” runner. Not because she’s an Olympic Medalist, but because of her knowledge of the sport, dedication to the running community and perseverance of running goals. She has extensive experience with every event distance from 5k’s to 100-mile Ultra’s and everything in between. She is involved with the running community – locally and nationally. She qualified for, and finished, the Boston Marathon (and has the jacket & hat to prove it)! She is a certified Chi-Running Instructor and spends vacations at Marathon training camps. She is always positive, encourages others and is an inspiration to us mere mortal runners!"
Next up is Bill Harkins. Yes, the Bill Harkins. I told him what I was doing, and asked him for a quote.
"It would take a book, not two pages, to sum up Verna. She was the WIN For Kansas City (Women's Intersport Network) Senior Sportswoman Of The Year in 2003.

Though primarily a distance runner, IBM asked Verna to enter the Kansas City Corporate Challenge races one year. Verna won medals at most of the track distances and in the 5K, shocking the entrenched runners who had no idea (and little fear) of this "newcomer." She successfully defended her status the following year.

Verna helped me through the darkest days of my life—by keeping me running and reminding me that you don't have to be strong all the time; it's okay to lean on the strength of others.

There was a time when I could beat her at any distance. Alas, that was then, this is now. She surprised a lot of people along the way. People who outrun her in group runs are beaten by her in races. Few were aware of how very hard Verna trains in private.

Quick summation: intelligent, determined, competitive, gracious, beautiful, competitive (did I say that?), and a loyal friend. Oh, yeah. It takes Verna about eight miles in a race to get warmed up!"

My Interview with Verna

Finally, I asked Verna a few questions. It was my intent to edit this a bit, maybe not publish all of the questions, but I was so moved reading it, I couldn't cut anything out! I owe a tremendous thanks to Verna, Bill and Gary. Thank you for your help not only in this celebration of Verna, but in your every day ways you have helped me to become a runner.

Alex: Ok, I have to ask, what is your definition of "elite runner"?

Verna: In my opinion, “Elite runner” refers to those runners who not only have a talent that stands out, but who also have the passion and the willingness to do the work to develop that talent to its maximum potential. We see them getting the sponsorships and placing high in running events.

Alex: And, how long have you been running?

Verna: Almost sixteen years.

Alex: That's kinda cool... like me, you weren't always a runner. Why do you run?

Verna: I started running to manage my weight. I continue to run because there is nothing else I would rather do. It defines me. It connects me with the Universe.

Alex: You've done so many things which are amazing. Of what accomplishment are you most proud?

Verna: I am most proud of finishing the Mother Road 100 in November of 2006. I do not have a talent for speed but I can stay on my feet for a long time.

Alex: Yes, you can! What was your first ultra like?

Verna: It was the Afton 50K in Afton State Park, Afton, MN. It is held in July and I did it in 2001. It is a two loop course and Bill Harkins ran the first loop with me. Although it was a warm day, my training in the heat of Kansas City must have paid off. Except for some anxiety about missing the first loop cut-off time, I felt good throughout the entire event and thoroughly enjoyed being in the woods and in the fields as I ran along. I remember moving over for some folks on horses and enjoyed the sight of such magnificent animals. There were plenty of hills rising up the rocky ravines from the river and I recall picking my way carefully back down on the steep downgrades. There was also a stretch of flat trail along the river to look forward to. I remember a stretch of single track snowshoe trail as having particularly rough footing. John and my granddaughter, who was seventeen at the time, hung out for hours waiting and watching for me to come through the first loop, and then back again for the finish. I had promised my granddaughter that we would go shopping at the Mall of the Americas afterwards and we did! The following week I met someone who turned out to be a runner, and as we were getting acquainted I proudly reported that I had finished my first 50K. She said, “Oh, a 50K, they’re easier than marathons because you don’t have to run as hard.” That certainly took the wind out of my sails, but it turns out she was right.

Alex: Hm. I might disagree on that point. Well, what has been the hardest for you?

Verna: Finishing the Mother Road 100 was hard, but I would have to say that the hardest was the Bohemian Alps 50 Mile in Brainerd, Nebraska in September 2004. It was harder because the urge to quit was so overwhelming. In the Mother Road 100 I never once had to fight the urge to quit. Bohemian Alps 50 Mile is a low key, small event held on the country roads of Nebraska and there is a reason they call it the Bohemian Alps. The first has to do with the ethnicity of the early settlers of that area and the second has to do with the topography of the land. The rolling hills were carved out by receding glaciers and they rise and fall in endless, steep undulations. They are the type of hills that reckless teenagers pick to “hill hop”, often with tragic results. The temperatures rose into the mid-nineties that day and I had been struggling since about thirty miles. John had been hop-scotching ahead of me on the course and as he waited for me at forty miles I began to get a second wind. He reports that he would see me top a hill and disappear down again, only to appear again at the top of the next hill and so on it went. In turn, I would see the car as I topped a hill only to have it disappear again as I headed down. My second wind momentum carried me along to where he was waiting but the minute I stopped I was immediately overcome with lightheadedness, and nausea. I learned later that my error probably had to do with stopping too quickly in midst of that renewed push but it was too late. I was ready to quit. I was in agony because my first attempt at fifty miles had resulted in a DNF and the thought of another DNF was more than I could bear, but there seemed to be no choice. I felt that bad. Wise John had me get in the air-conditioned car, and even though I was insisting it was over, he made no move to take me away from there. We sat in the car for about ten minutes and I began to feel slightly better. Finally, I got back out of the car and forged ahead one foot in front of the other in the heat. I had taken my watch off and did not pay any attention to the pace or how long it took to cover each mile and I ordered John not to tell me. I kept going and told myself that I had to finish so I would never have to do another one. At one point there was a horse whinnying at me from the top of a hill and it seemed to me that he was encouraging me to keep coming. As evening approached and it began to cool down, I was able to actually run the last few miles. And I did do another one, three weeks later.

Alex: Holy cow. Another one three weeks later? Now that took courage. Do you have a favorite runner? Who? Why?

Verna: My favorite runner and personal hero is Carolyn Mitchell. She inspired me and encouraged me from my first days in Big Miles Training of Kansas City. She is now 71 years old and has run somewhere around 80 marathons. She will be running the Antarctica Marathon on March 5, 2008. She is amazing.

Alex: Do you have mantra you use while running?

Verna: I do use mantras and they have varied over the years. In 2002 while training for the Detroit Marathon I had been reading "Programmed to Run" by Thomas S. Miller. The author uses the term “audiogenics” to describe image-enhancing words you say to yourself as you run. I took his description of efficient running style and turned it into the mantra, “Load…, Fire…, Fly” …. I literally repeated this mantra for the entire 26.2 miles in Detroit and the result was the Boston Qualifier I was after. Since becoming a ChiRunning instructor I have incorporated different words into a mantra to help me with improving my ChiRunning technique. Currently, I am working on trying to run with a lighter foot strike and my mantra has been, “Eggshells… Hot Coals… Lean…” The image of running on eggshells and hot coals does help.

Alex: That reminds me. Can you talk a bit about Chi running?

Verna: Discovering ChiRunning was almost surreal in the way that I immediately and instinctively knew that the ChiRunning program was for me. I discovered it at the Boston Marathon Expo in 2004 where I met Danny Dreyer, and bought his book. He did not even have to try to sell me. In fact, I talked to him very little because it was time to be getting out of there and back to our hotel to rest. I bought the book, had him autograph it and left. After reading the book, I decided to go for a week-end seminar to learn more and then that was followed by a decision to become an instructor as a means of further enhancing my ChiRunning understanding and skills. I love the way ChiRunning is so logical and so in keeping with the laws of physics and the laws of nature. I see it as a means to keep me running into old age. I am teaching ChiRunning and ChiWalking classes on a limited basis. I plan to focus on it more intently when I retire from my day job.

Alex: So, What's next for Verna?

Verna: I have found that focusing on a quality spring marathon helps me with my speed and then I focus on ultras in the fall. The Mother Road 100 was supposed to be a one time event but, as it turns out, a Mother Road Part 2 is planned for November of 2008 and I am entered. It will be on a different course, this time on Old Route 66 in western Oklahoma. I will do some other ultras leading up to it, probably the Patriot’s Run and the Heartland 50 Mile. My spring marathon will be the Lincoln Marathon in May. My goal is to run as well in Lincoln as I did in Rochester, MN last May. If I do, I will be going to Boston again in 2009 but we will see. There are no guarantees. I have learned that training and participation have their own rewards.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

2008 Groundhog 10K

There's nothing like watching the start of a race. Or, the finish of one for that matter. One of the reasons I love the Groundhog 10K is you get both with the 5K starting 45 minutes before the 10k. I stood with a mass of 3,000+ runners in the caves somewhere near the starting line, hearing the national anthem and feeling the excitement.

Standing behind a tall blonde girl, probably similar weight to me but even thinner and a bit taller. She stood in shorts, and also stood by to watch the 5Kers take off. She flexed her legs, stretched and I kept thinking, wow, look how muscular her legs are. She had definition around her shins and calves that would make any woman proud. I wonder how fast I'd be if my legs were that muscular. I cast a glance downward, in something of a leg-envy and wishful thinking, and looked at my own legs. Whoa! I had the same definition, even more pronounced and impressive. Hm. Maybe I should preen a bit more. How did I miss this key development?

Then, just a minute or two before 9 AM sharp, another girl parts the crowd right by me, almost touching me. She is led by what appears to be her coach, and I don't know why this is, but it's clear that's the relationship. She carries herself with such confidence, much smaller than I, perhaps 5' 2". And one sold brick of muscle. Her abs are bare and as flat as any runner on the cover of Runner's World. Her body fat must be well below ten percent. I am struck by the thought, this girl is going to win the race, but how will she even get to the starting line in time? I am quite a bit back from the 9 min. / mile pace group. Hm.

The start begins and the runners are off. A sea of people move in front of me.

At around 14 minutes elapsed, I took a quick break and a diversion to watch the first few 5Kers come across the finish line. I waited an eternity until the first runner crossed in a little over 17 minutes, a young male flying well head of anyone else. A few more cross, some impressive kicks, but I must see the first female finisher. I'm not surprised, just a few seconds later, that it is the girl who brushed by me that I thought was going to win. I've never seen her before, but her attitude and confidence was unmistakable. She was the first female by far.

I'm 5 minutes late to get my warm-up started, but who could resist seeing another group of runners off. I begin to jog around as slowly as possible, and it is clear by my absolute lack of direction I'm lost and found in the caves at least a half dozen times before its time to start running myself. I make a last minute pit stop in the porta potties, and wonder why that is. Must be nerves.

With just a few minutes left now before my own start, I decide to let my legs stretch out briefly beyond my ultra-slow jog. I'm feeling seriously outclassed, but determined to meet my goals somewhere in the middle. That's why I'm here, after all. Yeah, If I can break 52 minutes, life is good. I let myself go, feeling my stride length more than double, and wow, it just feels amazing. It's just a reminder that I'm ready to go.

I line up at the 8 minute per mile pace sign, and wish I could get a little closer to the starting line. I don't see mats, so I wonder if it's only gun time that matters. Without being rude I can't get any closer. Finally, it's 2 minutes to go and I begin to count backwards from 120 seconds. And we're off.

My music, carefully selected last night to keep me in a heightened state of excitement, begins blaring too loudly. But I like it, and leave it that way. Could be a good thing. I feel great, and try to find a position that doesn't leave me feeling too boxed in. I hate that feeling. I have a hard time with this, spurting through holes, thinking, "please get out of my way," and wonder why all these people lined up at 8 minutes per mile when they are running so slowly.

I have no Garmin, no idea my pace. I pick a pace that feels comfortable, something like my three strides at 8:30 yesterday. Legs strong, but no strain. I have my elapsed time per mile written on the inside of my wrist in a sharpie marker, picking an aggressive finishing time goal just under 51 minutes. Why not? My first mile is supposed to be in 8:30, and then 8:20, and so on. As I pass the first mile mark, I glance down at my stop watch, which reads 7:06. Oops. It really didn't feel that fast.

My next mile is in 7:30, and that was after I really pressed for a slow down. I then passed the blonde runner with the impressive legs. By the half way point (the course is two loops on the 5K course), I looked down at my watch: 23:40. Two thoughts come to mind: I'm going to break 50 minutes, even if I slow down dramatically. Second, I'm starting to get a little tired.

By mile four, I have really noticed the smell of diesel fuel and fertilizer, and feel my chest begin to wheeze. I wonder how I'll hang on, but everyone else seems to be doing it, so I will too. I cough a few times and think this must be what it is like to have exercise-induced asthma. I don't remember fumes from the last time I ran this course, but it will be over soon. Just keep running.

Whenever I race, there is usually one factor that is my hardest to overcome. Temperature (usually too hot), hills, legs feeling weak, lungs, or "the wall." But today, it's the lungs, it's the wheezing that seems to be caused by the fumes. The course is fast and flat, and must be the flattest 10K course possible. I think that my lungs will hurt for days to come. My legs never feel weak though, and there are moments when I just check out and feel my legs carry me and not much else. There is no scenery in the caves. Just the music, and it's perfect.

At last, the finish line is ahead, and I'm spent. I have a little kick left, but not much, and I leave everything I have on the course. I sprint through, and hit my stopwatch as soon as I cross the timing mat. The time is 49:25. I have, somehow, broken 50 minutes. I do the math, that's an average of two sub-25 minute 5Ks (all the higher power my brain could handle was 50 divided by 2). I couldn't have run 10 more steps. I find a spot to rest for a second and someone clips my chip off.

It's a long time until the awards ceremony. I didn't really think I'd place in the top three in my age group, and I didn't. But third place had a 48 in front of it, so I wasn't too far off. I'm totally satisfied, surprised even, with my performance today. An outstanding 10K PR. Time to celebrate. My well-earned bottle of champagne chills in my refrigerator.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Preparing for the 2008 Groundhog 10K helpfully reminds me of the upcoming race: Be sure to pack sunglasses, hat and sunscreen. (Um... It's underground people!)

After being out of town on business for the week, returning in the wee hours of this morning I picked up my race packet for the Groundhog 10K to be run this Sunday. I'll be runner #469, and unlike two years ago, I will now be smartly appearing at the starting line in shorts and a tank top. I knew I was in trouble when I was the only runner there in long pants and a long sleeve shirt two years ago.

Maybe only a runner can truly appreciate the uniqueness of this race--the only one of its kind in the country, run totally underground. It's quite warm, sometimes a little dark, and relief from the heat every so often as you pass close to the entrance of the "caves."

I ran it two years ago in 55:41, as my first 10K. I had only run 6 miles or more once or twice, and was actually worried about finishing. I weighed 2-3 pounds less than I do now, but I was a few percentage points in body fat higher then. While heavier is not always more desirable, maybe that's good weight, and I can actually recruit those muscles to do something meaningful!

Although I'm petite, I am worried maybe that I do weigh too much now, and just ordered Eating Clean by Tosca Reno in hopes of improving my eating habits to properly fuel my body, while whittling away any excess fat that is hanging around. I've really been focusing on eating healthy foods for the past several weeks, and I've done reasonably well, but there is always room for improvement. I am hungry all the time. My focus is on being healthy, strong and well-fueled. More on this in the weeks to come.

My goals for the race are pretty simple, I have three levels: First, I hope to at least break 53:00 minutes. Unless something goes terribly wrong, I should easily be able to achieve this. I would be very disappointed in myself if I didn't. Second, I hope to break 52:00--possible, but a bit of pacing and effort. This goal is one I consider personally worthy of celebration, and would illustrate decent pacing and hard work on my part for my fitness level. Finally, my "stretchy" goal would be to break 51:00. If I break this, I get a bottle of champagne out of the deal! Overall, as I go out I will be most concerned about pacing, to go out slow when my inner racer wants to go out too fast. And with no Garmin to slow me down, this is a real danger for me. I'll be posting my elapsed time goals on a band to track my progress. Now, it's just time for those last few race prep rituals!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Just How Elite IS Elite?

I’m flipping through my February 2008 Runner’s World and the catch-word of the issue is “elite.” The cover screams “Elite ABS,” with a picture of Josh Cox sporting a chiseled eigth-wonder-of-the-world marvel above the waist. (Please tell me that photograph has been enhanced. And if it hasn’t, I don’t want to know.) Page 18 touches on the tragedy of Ryan Shay a few months ago, “an elite athlete at the peak of his career…” Page 28 shows Jen Perez, “Elite Triathelete.” The word actually appears three times on page 58. You get the point.

In my quest to define “elite,” I asked around for other runners’ opinions. Here are some of the responses I got:

Dave says: “For me to define an elite runner I compare it to other sports. Elite is obviously those at the top. Where professional sports are involved, it makes it easy: to me an elite golfer is one who is able to make it and survive on the PGA Tour or an elite football player is one who plays in the NFL. Running is different as there really is not a “pro” tour involved with lots of money but here is what I would consider:

  • Earn money: be fast enough where when you enter a race, you are in contention or winning the prize money.
  • Olympics: make or qualify for the Olympics.

Lastly to be elite, running needs to be more than a hobby. It is basically your full time job. I do not think it would be possible to hold a full time job and then be an elite runner on the side."

Gary says: “To is someone who places in a large marathon. Boston, NY, Chicago, etc., or qualifies for the Olympic Trials / team. I know some fast runners, but they aren't that good. And they all have day jobs. I suppose you could have elite / pro and elite / real people. I could throw in, having a sponsor helps qualify them as elite. And if you had a movie made about you, like PRE.”

Vince (yes, as in “coach”): The word "elite" takes on a whole new meaning up here [he means 7,000 feet above sea level—do the math, that’s over a mile which makes me wonder if they run around with oxygen tanks], and this may be one more reason as to why the word can only be used based on one's perspective. It seems to me that an elite in running is someone who can support themselves financially on their performances. I guess you could also call this person a "professional runner." I checked with one of my buddies on the run this morning, and he said "elite is a top 10 finish at a national class event." "

Whoa, ok, so these are some pretty high standards. I went into this thinking that elite was a benchmark of a time and a distance sliced by some dimension (male, female, age, etc.) that was achievable if you were in the 99th percentile of runners. But these answers made me wonder just how elite is an elite? Is it really just the top handful of hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of runners?

So, what’s the point? It made me wonder why is this the catch word du jour? I’ve decided it’s because if the elites are doing it, well… maybe the rest of us should be too. I mean, they were human once too, right? So, what makes them elite? What can we learn from them?

I found some answers in a Shape article back in October 2003 by Eric Harr. He notes that we are inspired: “first, by what top-echelon athletes can do with their bodies; second, by how they stay motivated to stick with a training regimen that makes them seem almost superhuman… In spite of their unique strengths, champions are regular people who face the same motivational ebbs and flows we all do.” Although he’s not talking about elite runners, per se, he captures the spirit of our journey today.

He quotes Jay Kimiecik, Ph.D., author of The Intrinsic Exerciser: Discovering the Joy of Exercise (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). "Top athletes may seem like a distinct species from the rest of us, but they also represent what's possible in each of us. They set lofty goals, then push themselves, trying and testing every tool, technique and method to stay motivated."

He concludes, “Invest in yourself first every day. Your daily habits determine [what you will become].” If we can take a little piece of their grit, determination and spirit—even if we lack their talent—there’s a better “us” around the corner. So, pick your favorite elite runner. Study them, what they did, what they overcame, how they were motivated, who they were. And draw from it to be better than you were yesterday.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Viral Intervals

Monday, I woke up seemingly tired, but it was Monday, after all. I got my run in, 5 miles outdoors, followed up with my prescribed strides. It was chilly, but a beautiful, sunny day. By noon, I had to check my thermostat, as the house had gotten a little colder. I turned on my fireplace and grabbed a blanket to continue working out of my home office in comfort. Oh yeah, you know what's coming already don't you? Suffice it to say, I was completely ignorant at this point.

My next conference call started at 1 PM, and I was key, however one item played in my favor. The host (thankfully NOT me this time) decided to go in reverse alphabetical order (that meant "A" for "Alex" was last up). We never got there. Nothing else would have saved me from what happened during the next hour. I never could have uttered a word. The house was fine, I wasn't. Those were chills and fever which preceded the rather urgent and unavoidable announcement that my body had now turned into a furious viral-replicating and spewing machine no longer capable of coherent thought. Well, at least I got my run in.

Tuesday is my day for intervals.... at least, it is now. I had a two mile warm-up, several intervals at a prescribed pace, and a two mile cool down. The thought of missing a workout struck more fear in me than getting sick during a run. You guessed it, I managed to get dressed and go for the workout. I hung in there through the warm up; a gentle, slow run. Then the intervals started. As I started my seventh and penultimate interval, the stomach cramps began to get much worse and [what happened during the next 10 minutes has been deleted from this blog]. Should I mention what a disruption dripping sweat is during this 10 minutes? If I could have somehow shut it off, I would have.

Could I quit? Please? Oh, pretty please? No. I started my seventh interval over, finished my eighth, and barely... just barely squeaked out my two mile cool-down before I was sick again. Somehow, I'm sure this is going to be good training for a marathon.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

2008 Legacy Park Unleashed 5K

18 seconds. I missed my goal by 18 seconds, finishing in 25:18 by my count (25:19 by the manual race timer). It was enough to win first in my age division (40-49), as well as a better time than anyone in the younger age division (30-39). It was second place for female masters. So, what happened? Why didn't I break 25 minutes?

My goal was to run a consistent pace for the entire race at 8:00 / mile. My actual pace / mile was 7:59. By that measure, I met my goal.
  • Mile 1: 7:51
  • Mile 2: 8:04
  • Mile 3: 8:07
  • Last stretch pace: 7:19
I lined up pretty close to the start, and, caught up in the excitement, took off way-too-fast (showed just above 6 minutes / mile pace in the beginning), and did the "grab myself by the collar from behind," telling myself to slow down, slow down (allowing many runners to pass me when I didn't feel the need to slow down). I really wanted to hit pretty close to 8:00 for mile one. It worked, and I was feeling pretty good at the end of the first mile.

Then the hills began, and by the end of mile two, I was feeling appropriately miserable. By the 4K mark, I just wanted to throw up somewhere. All I could think was, "Oh, please, can I just stop for a second. Must hurl. Must rid myself of my churning stomach contents." I was supposed to be kicking it in for the final mile, but the hills were more than I expected, and I was running into the wind. I had stopped looking at my pace and just ran as well as I could.

With a half mile to go, I was ready to quit. Where was the bus? If I'd have seen it, I'd have gotten on and ridden home. I forced myself to pass a runner behind whom I'd run much of the previous mile, and then as we got closer to the finish, he edged slightly ahead of me. I did pass a few others along the way, and stayed ahead of them. With maybe a 100 yards to go, a woman in a pink jacket sprinted ahead of me. She turned out to be the the masters winner (she was in the 50-59 age group), and she finished 3 seconds ahead of me. I think her last name was Rosenthal. An impressive kick at the end, I found myself cheering her in spite of my misery. It never really occurred to me at this point to try to beat her. Of course, the thought has occurred to me now. Could I have run 3 seconds faster?

The gentleman that passed me just towards the end walked up to me a few minutes after the finish and handed me a bottle of water, encouraging me, "tremendous run, young lady." Wow, that felt good--never underestimate the power of encouraging others. The water was quite welcome, and was only available inside in the gym. So, it was some effort to go get it (I hadn't bothered).

The final distance, according to my Garmin, was 3.17 miles. Had it been a few 100ths of a mile closer to 3.1 (like, say, 3.13), I would have beaten 25 minutes. Had it been a little flatter, even, I could have finished in under 25 minutes. But, I didn't, and only my finish time really matters. Completely ambivalent about my performance, I am both thrilled to have won my age division (and even a few others ;-)), made my per mile pace goal, but sorely disappointed in not breaking 25 minutes.

But, don't worry. I haven't peaked yet.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

What Is An Elite Runner?

I am not an elite runner. I will never be one. So, whatever the answer is, I'm not searching in the belief that it is a status attainable by me, but it is a status that I admire. In my mind, an elite runner is blessed with raw talent, and has finely tuned it by years of exhausting training and discipline. I view an "elite" runner as something of a hero, a role-model, someone who can inspire those of us who are weaker and less talented. And I love to hear about them and read about them, and absorb something from their lives.

I was gently reminded by my husband last night that running is my "latest little hobby." And I'm sure that many--if not most--people who view my running today probably see it that way. It is a humbling thought, and I am grateful to be reminded of it. Another perspective setter, lest I think too highly of myself: I did not take my first running step until 2005, and I had never run more than two miles until my first 5K in early October 2005. I am appropriately humbled as think through this topic.

As I started searching for the definition of an elite runner, I was blasted with many incompatible definitions. probably gave the best, simplest definition of "elite" I could find: "The best or most skilled members of a group." But, being left brained and searching for something more measurable, I was hoping for a percentage. Something that would make this translation easier. Who can say if one is elite or not? Is it black and white, or is there some grey area?

I expanded my search into the realm of technology, and found what I was seeking. The top ten percent. I like that; it's simple. Could one say, the top ten percent of all U.S. runners can be considered "elite" in this country? How many runners are there? What is the spread of times? We could do something like take a large marathon with no barrier to entry, like Chicago or Marine Corps, and find out what is the cutoff for the top ten percent. For the latter, that puts the women's marathon time in about 3:57, and the male in about 3:34. Not far off from what was suggested on one forum that an elite marathoner as anyone who qualified for Boston. I think that's too big of a group--and doesn't take into account walkers, age groups, etc. Besides, I fully intend to run a sub-3:57 marathon someday, and I'm nothing special.

So, how about other ideas? I read: "Top 3 finishers in a race of 200 or more participants." That didn't work so much for me, because it depends on the race and who showed up that day. Some say, "If you've ever qualified for the Olympics, or gone to the Olympic trials." Well, I'd definitely agree-without knowing anything else, if you meet one of those two Olympic-based criteria, you are certainly an elite runner.

Then I ran across a site that listed times for males and females, by distance, what are considered elite times for high school runners: This site suggested 5K times as 22:00 for female and 18:00 for male, and marathon times of 3:20 for female and 2:50 for male. That seems sufficiently fast and unattainable to me. I found this measure the most appealing to my mathematical brain.

While not definitive, I did learn a lot about how people perceive elites. And there's probably some validity to all the measures I read about. There may be no "right" answer; maybe it's heart, maybe it's speed. Maybe it's just gutting it out when others give up for the long haul.

And therein lies the beauty of running. Anyone can be a winner! Anyone can improve on his or her best effort. All dreams--great and small--have meaning for the runner. Even me. My dreams are small in the "big fish, big pond" sense. And although I'll still never be an elite, I do have dreams that are meaningful and give me hope for the future. I, for one, hold my goals dear.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Here's To A Great 2008!

"I'm convinced that we can write and live our own scripts more than most people will acknowledge. I also know the price that must be paid. It's a real struggle to do it. It requires visualization and affirmation. It involves living a life of integrity, starting with making and keeping promises, until the whole human personality the senses, the thinking, the feeling, and the intuition are ultimately integrated and harmonized."--Stephen Covey

January 1. The day many declare their resolutions for the year; eat better, spend better, give up some detrimental habit, or other more squishy ones like, "be nicer," or, "enjoy life more." For me, 2008 is about achieving goals. And nothing requires living a life of integrity and keeping promises like being a committed runner.

This is the year I plan to qualify for Boston. I hope that it is a Spring marathon where I accomplish this, but as long as the BQ occurs before 12/31/08, technically... I'm good. And it is my concluding goal to then run Boston in 2009.

I have a few smaller goals, like officially breaking 25 minutes for a 5K. I have a shot at this on Saturday, just 4 days away. It looks like the weather will be cooperating, and I feel pretty good. I believe I am ready, and anxiously await the starting line.

My stretchy goal is to break 24 minutes in a 5K. Which, to me, sounds extremely challenging, and I'm sure is many months away. And a goal I will forgo should it interfere in any way with my BQ goal.

Thinking about this, I also paused to reflect, what have I done
this past year? Am I really that much a better runner than 1/1/2007? In some ways, as the days and weeks and months tick by, the progress is so slow, it's not noticeable. I sincerely wondered if I'd really evolved as a runner at all. So, where was I one year ago?

  • In 2006, I ran 866 miles. In 2007, I ran 1,413 miles (plus a little bit for striders).
  • In 2006, my fastest official 5K was 27:31 (and I dry heaved). In 2007, it was 25:32 (and I felt surprisingly OK).
  • In 2006, I doubt I broke an 8 minute mile (I didn't think I could). In 2007, I ran at least one 6:58 that I actually recorded (imagine my surprise).
  • In 2006, I'd completed 3 half marathons (including my first). In 2007, I ran two full marathons (including my first).
  • In 2006, I didn't look or feel like a runner. In 2007, well... I do.
I can't wait to see what 2008 brings. My passion and discipline for running is locked in. Now, it's about being smart and channeling it into the most meaningful goals I can. And I hope you, too, have at least one running goal for 2008. If not, pause for a minute, and create one. It's not too late... Happy New Year!